Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership

Geologic CO2 Storage Potential

Geologic CO2 Sequestration, Geologic Sinks, and Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)

Underground geologic layers of rock that can store carbon dioxide (CO2) are called geologic CO2 sinks. Geologic CO2 sinks include oil and gas reservoirs, very deep geologic layers that contain very salty water (brine) and unminable coal beds.

CCS is the general practice of capturing CO2 from large-scale stationary sources before it enters the atmosphere and then putting the CO2 into long-term storage. Although there are only a handful of geologic CO2 sequestration projects in the world today, geologic CO2 sequestration is the major CO2 storage option under consideration for the long-term storage of CO2 captured at large-scale facilities in the future.

In geologic sequestration, CO2 is captured at stationary sources at the surface and is then injected into an underground geologic sink. Successful geologic sequestration requires that the CO2 stays in place and does not pose a danger to human health and the environment.

PCOR Partnership Region Geology and CO2 Sequestration Potential
The geology in the western and northern portion of the PCOR Partnership region has many advantages for geologic sequestration. The area is stable.1 The geologic basins in the area contain many underground traps that have stored oil and gas for millions of years and are possible CO2 sinks. In addition, these basins have major underground zones at great depth that contain very salty water that might be suitable CO2 sinks. Because CO2 physically "bonds" to coal, many of the deeper and therefore, unminable, coal seams in these basins could be candidates for the long-term storage of CO2.

A preliminary assessment of the geologic CO2 sinks in the region indicates that the capacity exists to store the 2008 total annual emissions from regional stationary sources for hundreds of years. This storage capacity means that the geologic sinks in the region could hold about 600 years worth of the annual CO2 emissions from the large-scale stationary sources in the region. Final decisions on geologic sequestration will be made based on a rigorous characterization of possible sites.

Geologic Sink Requirements
To be considered for sequestration, geologic sinks must be near a major source of CO2, have the characteristics that can hold the CO2 in place for a long period of time (for example, a seal above a permeable zone of rock similar to the situation that would trap and store oil or natural gas), be considerably deeper than the deepest water well, and be in a stable area (that is, an area that is not prone to earthquake activity). There are many locations in the world, including the southern United States, where large volumes of CO2 have been stored for millions of years in natural underground deposits similar to the underground deposits of oil and natural gas. To ensure success, potential storage sites will have to meet high standards.

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Regional Sedimentary Basins
There are four relatively large and deep intracratonic oil-producing basins within the PCOR Partnership region containing thousands of feet of sedimentary rock. These thick deposits of sedimentary rock contain zones that have significant potential as geological sinks for sequestering CO2. Geological sinks that may be suitable for long-term sequestration of CO2 include both active and depleted petroleum reservoirs, deep saline formations, and coal seams.

The geologic nature of the area is basically understood, but some areas and zones require further characterization. Areas where the rocks have been explored or developed for hydrocarbon recovery are relatively well understood. Areas where hydrocarbons are lacking or zones that do not contain hydrocarbons (such as saline formations) will require much more geologic investigation in order to be considered for large-scale sequestration.

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Sequestration in Saline Formations
Saline formations within the PCOR Partnership region have the potential to store vast quantities of anthropogenic CO2. Two saline aquifer systems, the Mississippian Madison and the Lower Cretaceous, have been evaluated for their regional continuity, hydrodynamic characteristics, fluid properties, and ultimate storage capacities using published data.

The lateral extent of these aquifers, the current understanding of their storage potential gained through injection well performance, and the geographic proximity to major CO2 sources suggest they may be suitable sinks for future storage needs. For example, reconnaissance-level calculations on the Mississippian system in the Williston Basin and Powder River Basin suggest the potential to store upwards of 60 billion tons of CO2 over the evaluated region, while the Cretaceous system has the potential to store over 160 billion tons.2,3

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Sequestration in Coal
Many coal seams throughout central North America are too deep or too thin to be mined economically. However, many of these coals have varying amounts of methane adsorbed onto pore surfaces, and wells can be drilled into the coal beds to recover this "coalbed methane" (CBM). In fact, CBM is the fastest-growing source of natural gas in the United States and accounted for 7.2% of domestic production in 2003.4

As with oil reservoirs, the initial CBM recovery methods, dewatering and depressurization, can leave methane in the coal seam. Additional CBM recovery can be achieved by sweeping the coal bed with CO2, which preferentially adsorbs onto the surface of the coal, releasing the methane. For the coals in the PCOR Partnership region, up to 13 molecules of CO2 can be adsorbed for each molecule of methane released, thereby providing an excellent storage sink for CO2.5 Just as with depleting oil reservoirs, unminable coal beds are a good opportunity for CO2 storage.

Three major coal horizons in the PCOR Partnership region have been identified for further study: the Wyodak-Anderson bed in the Powder River Basin, the Harmon-Hanson interval in the Williston Basin, and the Ardley coal zone in the Alberta Basin. The total maximum CO2 sequestration potential for all three coal horizons is approximately 8 billion tons.6,7

In northeastern Wyoming, the CO2 sequestration potential for the areas where the coal overburden thickness is >1000 ft (305 m) is 6.8 billion tons (6.2 × 1012 kg). The coal resources that underlie these deep areas could sequester all of the current annual CO2 emissions from nearby power plants for the next 156 years.8

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Sequestration in Oil and Gas Fields
The geology of CO2 sequestration is analogous to the geology of petroleum exploration; the search for oil is the search for sequestered hydrocarbons. Oil fields have many characteristics that make them excellent target locations for geologic storage of CO2. Therefore, the geological conditions that are conducive to hydrocarbon sequestration are also the conditions that are conducive to CO2 sequestration. The three requirements for sequestering hydrocarbons are a hydrocarbon source, a suitable reservoir, and an impermeable trap. These requirements are the same as for sequestering CO2, except that the source is artificial and the reservoir is referred to as a sink.

A single oil field can have multiple zones of accumulation which are commonly referred to as pools, although specific legal definitions of fields, pools, and reservoirs vary for each state or province. Once injected into an oil field, CO2 may be sequestered in a pool through dissolution into the formation fluids (oil and/or water), as a buoyant supercritical-phase CO2 plume at the top of the reservoir (depending on the location of the injection zone within the reservoir), and/or mineralized through geochemical reactions between the CO2, formation waters, and formation rock matrix.

Oil is drawn from the many oil fields in the PCOR Partnership region from depths ranging from 2500 to 4000 feet for the shallower pools to 12,000 to 16,000 feet for the deepest pools.

Although oil was discovered in this region in the late 1800s, significant development and exploration did not begin until the late 1940s and early 1950s. The body of knowledge gained in the past 60 years of exploration and production of hydrocarbons in this region is a significant step toward understanding the mechanisms for secure sequestration of significant amounts of CO2.

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Lessons from Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)
Because of their demonstrated ability to hold fluids, oil-bearing zones are of particular interest as candidates for CO2 storage. EOR using CO2 offers a way to initiate a geologic CO2 sequestration project in an area by using the injected CO2 to produce oil even as the CO2 goes into long-term storage. EOR using CO2 has been practiced safely in west Texas oil fields since the 1970s, and the Weyburn-Midale Project in south-central Saskatchewan and the Zama Project in northwestern Alberta are examples from the PCOR Partnership region of CO2 EOR projects that are paving the way to additional long-term CO2 sequestration projects.

Most oil is extracted from the ground in three distinct phases: primary, secondary, and tertiary (or enhanced) recovery. Natural pressures within the reservoir drive oil into the well during primary recovery, and pumps bring the oil to the surface. An additional fraction of the original oil can be extracted through secondary recovery processes which involve injecting water to displace the oil. Together, primary and secondary recovery produce roughly 15% to 40% of a reservoir's original oil.9

Conventional primary and secondary recovery operations often leave two-thirds of the oil in the reservoir. In the United States, EOR methods have the potential to recover much of that remaining oil, which is estimated to be 200 billion barrels.8 However, oil recovery is challenging because the remaining oil is often located in regions of the reservoir that are difficult to access, and the oil is held in the pores by capillary pressure.

Reconnaissance-level CO2 sequestration capacities were estimated for selected oil fields in the Williston, Powder River, and Denver-Julesberg Basins. Two calculation methods were used, depending on the nature of the available reservoir characterization data for each field. The estimates were developed using reservoir characterization data that were obtained from the petroleum regulatory agencies and/or geological surveys from the oil-producing states and provinces of the PCOR Partnership region. Results of the estimates for the evaluated fields (using a volumetric method) in the three basins indicate a storage capacity of over 10 billion tons of CO2.

Aside from non-market-based incentives, CO2 sequestration in many geologic sinks is not generally economically viable under current market conditions. However, EOR miscible flooding is a proven, economically viable technology for CO2 sequestration that can provide a bridge to future non-EOR-based geologic sequestration. For example, a portion of the revenue generated by CO2 EOR activities can pay for the infrastructure necessary for future geologic sequestration in brine formations. It is expected that unitized oil fields subjected to this type of recovery process would retain a significant portion of the injected CO2 (including the amount recycled during production) as a long-term storage solution.

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  1. Fischer, D.W., LeFever, J.A., Sorensen, J.S., Smith, S.A., Helms, L.D., LeFever, R.D., Whittaker, S.G., Steadman, E.N., and Harju, J.A., 2005, The influence of tectonics on the potential leakage of CO2 from deep geological sequestration units in the Williston Basin: Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership topical report for U.S. Department of Energy and multiclients, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Energy & Environmental Research Center, October.
  2. Fischer, D.W., Smith, S.A., Peck, W.D., LeFever, J.A., LeFever, R.D., Helms, L.D., Sorensen, J.A., Steadman, E.N., and Harju, J.A., 2005, Sequestration potential of the Madison of the northern Great Plains aquifer system (Madison geological sequestration unit): Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership topical report for U.S. Department of Energy and multiclients, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Energy & Environmental Research Center, June.
  3. Fischer, D.W., Sorensen, J.A., Smith, S.A., Steadman, E.N., and Harju, J.A., 2005, Potential CO2 storage capacity of the Lower Cretaceous aquifer system in the PCOR Partnership area: Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership topical report for U.S. Department of Energy and multiclients, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Energy & Environmental Research Center, September.
  4. (accessed September 2005).
  5. Burruss, R., 2003, CO2 adsorption in coals as a function of rank and composition - a task in USGS research on geologic sequestration of CO2: The Second International Forum on Geologic Sequestration of CO2 in Deep, Unmineable Coal Seams (Coal-Seq II), March 6-7, 2003, Washington, D.C.,
  6. Nelson, C.R., Steadman, E.N., and Harju, J.A., 2005, Geologic CO2 sequestration potential of lignite coal in the U.S. portion of the Williston Basin: Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership topical report for U.S. Department of Energy and multiclients, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Energy & Environmental Research Center, June.
  7. Bachu, S.B., Steadman, E.N., and Harju, J.A., 2005, Carbon dioxide storage capacity in Upper Cretaceous-Tertiary Ardley coals in Alberta: Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership topical report for U.S. Department of Energy and multiclients, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Energy & Environmental Research Center, June.
  8. Nelson, C.R., Steadman, E.N., and Harju, J.A., 2005, Geologic CO2 sequestration potential of the Wyodak-Anderson coal zone in the Powder River Basin: Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership topical report for U.S. Department of Energy and multiclients, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Energy & Environmental Research Center, June.
  9. Schlumberger, 2014, Oilfield glossary, secondary recovery: (accessed February 7, 2014).